Interview: Anthony Bozza, Author
If your first best seller is a surprisingly intellectual examination of a controversial artist’s place in American culture, what’s a better way to round out your game, to show you’re capable of both highs and lows, then to write a book narrated by a famous penis? Sitting by notorious musician Tommy Lee’s pool and sampling the products of a coffin-shaped Jagermeister machine, Anthony Bozza suggested just such a literary device. “Tommy, just one thing,” he said. “I was thinking that the best way to start the book is just open it up, to really get people involved, is for you to interview your own penis.” It was a risky strategy. Maybe the drummer was sick of discussing his home sex video with then-wife Pamela Anderson. Maybe he would fire the impertinent writer. Or, maybe Lee, no stranger to the methods of mayhem, would explode at such a suggestion.
Instead, he screamed “I fucking love you, bro!” as he hefted Bozza, lawn chair and all, into the pool.
This is how you get hired in Tommyland when you’re one of rock’s pre-eminent biographers.
Born in Brooklyn and raised in Long Island, NY, Bozza attended Northwestern University in Chicago, majoring in African and Middle Eastern history. After graduation, he returned to New York City and wrote for a number of music and pop culture publications before landing an internship at Rolling Stone. That internship led to a staff job for the magazine and he eventually began racking up an impressive list of interviews. Bozza’s first major article was an interview with Bo Didley. He followed that by interviewing “a phlegmatic, incomprehensible Ozzy Osbourne.”
Bob Love, the managing editor at the time, assigned Bozza the Random Notes column, hallowed space in the magazine previously helmed by Cameron Crowe, Jon Landau, and Kurt Loder. As part of his work with Random Notes, Bozza interviewed artists like Ray Charles, Bruce Springsteen, Steven Tyler, Paul McCartney, Jimmy Page, David Bowie, Johnny Cash, U2, Robert Smith and Johnny Rotten. He also wrote cover stories on artists ranging from Jennifer Lopez to Nine Inch Nails to N’Sync.
In 1999, Bozza wrote the first cover story ever published on Eminem. He had been pitching the up-and-coming rapper for a couple of years but when Dr. Dre signed Mr. Mathers, Bozza was finally given the green-light. Bozza’s connection with the rapper was such that he was the first journalist allowed to interview Eminem’s mother and then-girlfriend Kim. That interview, besides being one of the first national profiles of the rapper, ultimately contributed Debbie Mathers Briggs’ decision to file a $10 million lawsuit against her famous son. And Bozza was actually deposed as a witness for the defense. He would eventually interview Eminem at each stage of the rapper’s meteoric career, witnessing the ascent from underground rapper to cultural phenomenon.
In the late 1990’s the market for music journalism was totally saturated. Blender, Spin, and other more broadly-based magazines like Maxim were competing with Rolling Stone for coverage. It became more and more difficult to elicit interesting stories from artists that were speaking to three and four reporters every day. “By the time you got to them, even with Rolling Stone, they’d probably done a few interviews, they’re giving you the same quotes,” Bozza says. “You had to find a way to get something different if you wanted your article to be anything different from everyone else’s.”
Young writers, in particular, sometimes struggle with knowing when to push an interview subject and when to ease up, when to ask a silly question, and when to play it straight. There was a painful moment in MTV’s Meet the Barkers when a journalist asked Travis Barker “Hey, do you ever dress up in a monkey suit and swing from stuff?” The Blink-182 drummer was less than amused and promptly kicked the writer out. It was an embarrassing moment for everyone who has nervously asked questions of a celebrity. Being original as an interviewer, while also maintaining a professional level of quality can be a difficult balance to achieve.
“You have to differentiate yourself,” Bozza says. “You have to find a way to get the person either onto a subject they want to talk about or off-balance, and I don’t mean that in a negative way, but surprise them.” The best way to interview and write about someone is to spend a great deal of time around the subject. But this was becoming increasingly impossible. Publicists, managers, handlers, and flaks of all sorts “kept giving less and less time to writers,” Bozza says.
With precious time allowed to the media, writers have to do conduct extensive research to draw something different out of the interview subject. Discover the musician’s hobbies, for example, or their earliest jobs. In the interview, the writer should cover the basic journalism necessities so the musician sees a certain amount of core competence. And then throw in a curveball. “Find out that they used to work at Kentucky Fried Chicken and be like ‘man, that chopping up the chicken part, is that gross?’” Bozza offers as an example.
Uninterested in writing fluff pieces that simply regurgitated the same old blather about Musician X’s latest girlfriend or Musician Y’s shopping habits, Bozza ultimately chose another path. He chose to deal with the stringent media limitations by “just quitting magazines all together and writing nothing but books,” he says.
Fortunately, he had the perfect book project in mind when he quit the magazine.
With the impending release of 8 Mile, Eminem was on the verge of becoming a major cultural icon. The rapper had no interest in writing an autobiography. But due to the mutual respect that existed between rapper and writer, Eminem gave Bozza the go-ahead to work on the book that would become Whatever You Say I Am: The Life and Times of Eminem. “The kind of book I wanted to write was to contextualize him,” Bozza recalls. “Just really talking about why America hated him. And eight months later, loved him. And completely forgot they ever hated him. It’s totally hypocritical.”
When Bozza’s agent offered the Eminem book, five publishers lined up to participate in the auction. “I sat there on my couch taking calls from my agent and then talking to each of my potential editors,” Bozza remembers. “Literally, between calls, I kept saying aloud, ‘remember what this feels like,’ because it was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to me. I didn’t think that moment could be topped. It hasn’t been bested, but it has been equaled.”
Anyone opening the pages to Whatever You Say I Am in hopes of gawking at salacious details about Eminem’s marriage, drug use, criminal activities, and controversy were sorely disappointed. Certainly, you can’t scrutinize Em’s career without touching on the difficulties in his life. But Bozza examined those events through a prism of solid musical scholarship and critical gaze which give Whatever You Say I Am a credibility that is lacking in more tabloidy inspections of the rapper. Consider this passage describing Eminem’s third major label release, The Eminem Show: “The album also ties together Eminem’s various styles—the lunacy of Slim Shady, the intensity of Marshall Mathers, and the savvy of Eminem—often in the same song, as in Square Dance,” Bozza writes in the book. “In this song’s second verse, Eminem interlocks polysyllabic rhyme patterns into consecutive lines, compacting the language until it is no longer possible to continue the structure, all while laying down as much of an antiwar statement as Slim Shady is bound to make.”
Interlocking polysyllabic rhyme patterns, compacting language, impossible structure. Those are descriptions better suited to graduate student explications than to music coverage in a world where album reviews are kept to fifty words or less and most critics can’t be bothered to look past Eminem’s baggy pants and tattoos.
The serious examination in Whatever You Say I Am propelled the book to the New York Times bestseller list. It was in the United Kingdom’s top three for nearly four months and has been published in seven languages. Cracking the NYT bestseller list was the experience that equaled Bozza’s auction exhilaration. “There is just no explaining what that felt like, all the more so because it was accompanied by a review on the front page of the Arts section,” he says. “It still gives me goose bumps to remember it.”
For his next book, Bozza paired with another controversial musician. This time it was Motley Crue drummer Tommy Lee. Bozza wrote Whatever You Say I Am with some distance from the rapper. While Eminem, in many ways, has shared more with Bozza than any other journalist, the rapper was not involved in that project. He gave his blessing, and made people available, but this book wasn’t his. However, Lee had already signed a publishing deal for his autobiography and planned be intimately involved. He just needed a writer.
Long before Bozza made the penis literary pitch, he interviewed Ian Astbury, vocalist for The Cult. The singer was known for being particular about journalists, but Bozza made a good impression. Astbury shocked everyone by approving Bozza’s work on the first review. It was such a rare feat that Astbury’s manager, Carl Stubner, never forgot about the young writer. Stubner also happens to oversee Tommy Lee’s career. So when Lee searched for a writer to help with his autobiography, Bozza name was mentioned. “They were looking at a couple of people and he [the manager] was like, ‘Oh, my God, if he can handle Ian, I know he can handle Tommy,’” Bozza recalls.
To write a book in another person’s voice is a difficult chore that requires total concentration. “You have to definitely immerse yourself as much as possible, short of stalkerdom or forgetting your own name,” Bozza says. For Tommyland, Bozza lived with the drummer, watched him work, and listened to him speak. “I think it’s important to listen to people’s speech patterns,” he says. “The kind of language they use, how they tell a story, what they do. If you’re trying to tell someone else’s story, you kind of need to just let yourself be around them. Because on a subconscious level you’re also going to learn things about them that will come out in the writing.”
Writers who co-author celebrity books invariably encounter different levels of involvement from their subjects. For Bozza, although Tommy Lee didn’t actually write any text, he was intensely involved.
“Tommy wasn’t writing but that guy was sitting next to me posted up at his bar in his house for five months, which is pretty incredible,” Bozza recalls. The duo set up a massive 20-inch monitor so Lee could read Bozza’s writing like a teleprompter. The drummer would sit back with a watermelon martini and immediately correct the writer’s rhythm, word choices, and diction, allowing them to edit the book on the fly. “That was great. That was truly collaborative,” Bozza says.
Bozza traveled to the other side of the world for his next book. He had always been a fan of INXS and was intrigued by the opportunity to work on their official biography. Bozza offers these words of warning to aspiring authors, “No matter what anyone says, the project will take up much more of your time and life than you think.” However, when he agreed to work on the INXS book, more time was simply not an option.
The project’s difficulty increased exponentially because of the band’s stint on CBS’ Rockstar: INXS. “It was really the hardest, hardest, hardest thing that I’ve had to do because of the timeframe,” Bozza says. “Because it all sped up when they decided to do the TV show.” Work on the book began in February and he spent all of that month and most of March in Australia. Then, he had to hand in half of the book by April 15th. He met the band’s closest friends and family members in order to flesh out a portrait that had only been hinted at with the salacious gossip concerning Michael Hutchence’s death. Perseverance and lack of sleep paid off and Bozza had his third hit on his hands.
Bozza’s advice to aspiring writes is simple. “School yourself, find your own way and do your own thing in terms of coming up with your voice,” he says. Even though he went to Northwestern, he did not attend the university’s famed journalism school and feels his choice paid off. “I don’t think I’d be as good at what I do if I’d gone to journalism school,” he says.
His career has been marked by hard work, excellent writing, and fantastic projects. But Anthony Bozza’s goals for his work are much simpler than rock star trappings, bestseller lists, and world tours. “I’ve always liked to write, whether it was a history paper or just a journal entry, but I didn’t set out to be a writer,” he says. “To me, if I’ve written anything that has, even for a moment, made anyone think and entertained them while doing so, that’s all I care about. To me, that’s success.”
To learn more about Anthony Bozza and his work, please visit his website.